Should We Forgive Those Who Show No Repentance?Does Scripture support our practice of forgiving our offenders even if they are unrepentant?
Christians often feel obligated to forgive everyone who offends them even if the offenders are sometimes unrepentant or without remorse. But it’s a good question to consider if this practice is biblically supported.
...to ask Christians to forgive unilaterally is to ask them to do what even God does not apparently do.
Some argue there is clear biblical teaching to support what I call “unilateral” or “one-way” forgiveness. For example, didn’t Jesus say that if someone sins against us 77 times we are to forgive (see Matthew 18:21-22)?
However, do these verses really demand we practise unilateral forgiveness? A similar passage in Luke adds an important point of clarification. As Jesus says, “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive” (Luke 17:4 NRSV).
So Jesus is not encouraging one-way forgiveness at all but, rather, that forgiveness should not be withheld from those who repent. Thus, Matthew 18 more accurately speaks to those who think (like Peter did) that there must be a point where forgiveness can legitimately be withheld. But Jesus’ answer is clear: No – not if there is repentance.
But what about Jesus’ own words from the cross? “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). While this might seem to be a powerful example of Christ’s unilateral forgiveness, take another look. Interestingly, Jesus’ words are not at all a declaration of forgiveness to those unrepentant soldiers who crucified Him; rather, they are a prayer to God the Father on the soldiers’ behalf.
Even if we were to conclude that Jesus unilaterally forgave those who crucified Him, we must take into account the unique situation these soldiers were in: no one had ever, nor would again, commit the sin of putting God’s Son to death. It may be due to the extraordinary circumstances that Jesus prayed as He did.
Consequently, we should not derive a universal principle of the practice of unilateral forgiveness from what is clearly an unrepeated set of circumstances for a limited number of persons as enacted by none other than the Son of God Himself.
Beyond the need to look more carefully at the texts that are often used to defend unilateral forgiveness, we should think about what we are asking Christians to do when we demand that they forgive the unrepentant.
Indeed, to ask Christians to forgive unilaterally is to ask them to do what even God does not apparently do. If 1 John 1:9 is instructive, it is that God’s forgiveness is linked in an important way to human confession or acknowledgement of sin. Thus, God’s example is not that He forgives automatically without anyone asking but that he freely and faithfully forgives those who do acknowledge the sins the Holy Spirit points out to them.
So what then is forgiveness? The biblical meaning of the term is often confused with another important biblical concept, namely, reconciliation: living in complete harmony and peace with one another.
Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation but is a step along the way toward reconciliation. Thus, a more precise biblical view of forgiveness is “cancellation of debt” or, as I put it, agreeing to put ourselves on level ground with those who have hurt us in the hope that full reconciliation might occur.
Forgiveness says “I refuse to hold this sin against you once you have acknowledged it. I refuse to use it as present or future leverage against you. And I refuse to let it be an obstacle toward reconciling with you.”
So how should Christians respond to unrepentant offenders? Frankly, one of the most damaging things we can do is to absolve them unilaterally of their wrong. For if we do, we have effectively made it more difficult for them to acknowledge their wrong in the first place.
So the Christian obligation is not to ignore our feelings of anger or hurt, nor to cover things over by a cheery face, but to lay the offences of those who harm us at the foot of the cross and, as God does in Christ Jesus, to be ready to forgive when the offenders acknowledge their wrong. But whatever we do we should not forgive offences until offenders recognize their need for it.
David Guretzki is on faculty at Briercrest Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan. Representatives of 10 seminaries affiliated with The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada take turns writing this weblog.
Related Letter to the Editor
No Forgiveness Without Repentance
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